There can be only one.

Back to getting the politicians we want. My article on why we don’t get them now showed that the Senate provides politicians who better represent us than does the House of Representatives. Electing multiple members from each electorate and doing so using proportional representation gives greater representational diversity. That is the diversity of political ideas represented in the Senate is closer to the diversity of political ideas held by Australian voters than is so for the House of Representatives.

Ideally, democracy is a social system in which every member has an equal amount of power. Clearly this democracy is impossible; however any proposed policy can be measured against it to determine if it increases or decreases democracy.

Like democracy perfect representative democracy is impossible. In an ideal world our politicians would represent the full range of political views of Australian electors in proportion to the frequency electors hold those views.

Double dissolution elections aside each Senate electorate, state or territory, elects at most 6 senators at a time requiring a candidate to represent views held by at least 17% of voters in order to be elected. Or at least it would be the case if everyone voted below the line distributing their own preferences. The vagaries of preference deals and strategic preference denials distort this but the system still works approximately and, to my mind, well enough.

Were the House of Representatives elected from a single electorate of the whole country by proportional representation its current size of 150 members would allow election of candidates who represent 0.7% of Australian voters. The diversity of political views represented in our parliament would closely approximate those of Australian electors and Paul Keating’s taunt of the Senate as “unrepresentative swill” would become, at least for the adjective, relatively true.

What purpose would the Senate then fulfil? Its relatively unrepresentative composure would bias it towards the political middle ground, the problem we are trying to fix, and its six year terms would continue to provide a brake on rapid change. Rapid change has never been a problem in Australian politics. Look at the slow uptake of Senate diversity described in my article on direct democracy. Governments have always been able to release the Senate’s ‘brake’ on change by calling a double dissolution election.

The Senate would provide no useful function and could be abolished.

The Senate abolished, we could increase the House of Representatives to 200 members and still reduce total federal politicians by 26. Candidates representing 0.5% of voters, or 75433 voters, would be elected. On this basis the Nick Xenophon Group would have elected three members just on the first preference votes they received from South Australians in 2013 before preferences were allocated or anyone from other states voted for them.

The Australian parliament would practically represent the diversity of political views held by Australian voters.

Minority government would be almost guaranteed by this system. The better our parliament represents us the less likely any party is to get 50% of members. Even with our present system we elected a minority government in 2010; the Senate is rarely controlled by the government, and States often elect minority governments.

The Gillard minority government was an effective executive and a prolific legislator. The problems it embodied which failed to see its successor (Rudd) government re-elected can, I would argue, be traced back to the demise of the first Rudd government and even further into ALP history. Had the House of Representatives been more diverse Julia Gillard would have had the potential to negotiate a broader coalition for confidence and supply, or renegotiate that coalition, allowing her to manage the ALP’s internal problems in ways which were not available to her.

The ability of diverse parliaments with minority governments to better adapt to change or even to smoothly change government without an election can be seen as a benefit. Had Tony Abbott formed government in such a parliament either his administration would be much different, by time of writing, or he would no longer enjoy the confidence of The House.

Empirically; Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland all have minority governments and usually do. All these countries also have proportional representation in their lower house of parliament and have a long history as stable prosperous democracies.

Not having a local member to take problems to is a common objection. In the electorate of Durack, Australia’s largest, local member Melissa Price’s office is, by road, over 2200 kms from her furthest elector. Fortunately we live in the age not only of telecommunications but of the internet, supplementing the postal system for distance communications.

To my mind having a representative who well represents your views is a greater good than having a representative who is only a 2200 km drive away. Further, with only one electorate we each would have 200 representative to “mix and match” until we found one who would investigate our problem.

As a fellow tweep said:

@oneodverb I live outside a village in FNQ
How much representation would I get from someone in Sydney or Perth?

I can actually answer that myself
About as much as I get from Bob Katter now.
But that’s not really the point.

To my mind, that is really the point.

“What about the bush” I hear Doug Anthony bellow. 11% of Australian voters are currently in rural electorates. If rural issues are most important to those voters proportional representation will provide 11% of representatives, or 22 members, representing ‘rural’ political views.

History shows rural voters will likely stick together. The Country Party, sorry National Party, just won’t die.

Rural voters have led diversity of representation in lower house electorates. Long before the Greens were able to win latte sipping city electorates country voters were electing independent, not minor party, candidates who were honest, competent, pragmatic, moderate and above all rural.

Rural heros like Tony Windsor, Peter Andren, Rob Oakshot and Cathy McGowan appeal much more to city voters than city representatives appeal to the bush. Even if ‘city votes’ bleed to the country at the same rate as ‘country votes’ bleed to the city proportionality would put the bush well ahead.

If this affect were diluted over time then an important rural issue devoloped the following election would see that issue better represented than by the current system. The Shenhua coal mine has more opposition, by numbers, from the city than the country.

A valid criticism is that the ballot paper would be too big and voting too dificult. The Russian Duma elects 450 members by proportional representation from a single electorate. The Russians manage this problem by banning independents and having tough barriers to party registration, solutions not acceptable to me. A future article will discuss use of a ballot booklet and voting method change to make such elections practical and easy without compromising elector control of their preferences.

This proposal is radical change and its implementation requires passing a constitutional referendum. Australians don’t like radical change and rarely pass referendums. This change is not practically possible.

This is the third article an a series which started with the question “Why don’t we get the politicians we want?” and followed by asking “How about Direct Democracy?”. The next article of this series will discuss how close to the proposal of this article we can get without constitutional change.

Copyright 2015 John David

How about Direct Democracy?

In recent elections the Australian Electoral Commission has allowed limited internet voting. Assuming this system is secure, it is practically possible to allow every Australian to vote on each bill before parliament.

The two existing houses of Parliament could create and pass bills with voters providing an effective third ‘house’ of parliament which must pass all bills before they go to the Governor General.

Clearly our much cherished compulsory voting would have to be foregone for the ‘third house’. It is too much to ask every Australian to vote on every piece of legislation before parliament. Some theorists, however, believe that voluntary voting would improve our democracy.

The ‘third house’ would not require constitutional change; it could be implemented legislatively provided both houses of parliament pass the enabling legislation and agree to abide by the process. This approach has benefits and risks. A government disrespectful of voter’s will could, if the Senate agreed, ignore or remove the system. Alternatively, if the system failed for some unforeseen reason the parliament would be able to rectify the failure.

The ‘third house’ would allow voters to block unpopular legislation but not allow voters to create popular legislation.

In the United Kingdom the People’s Administration Direct Democracy Party has a more ambitious agenda to remove the House of Representatives and the House of Lords from the legislative process. They envision an internet based system for proposing, discussing and voting on government policy with two stages of off-line opinion poll checks to detect process manipulation. Comprehensive telephone access would be offered for voters without internet access. A flow chart for their proposal is found on their web site.

The process proposed by the UK’s People’s Administration Direct Democracy Party for creating legislation could be added to the first option to allow voters to directly create as well as stop legislation without constitutional change.

Switzerland introduced voter initiated constitutional referenda is 1848 along with a requirement, similar to Australia’s, that all constitutional changes be passed by referendum. A petition for constitutional change signed by 50 000 citizens required the government to put the proposed change to a referendum.

In 1874 Switzerland extended its petition and referenda process to allow voter’s to create legislation or to stop legislation passed by the parliament from being enacted.

The Swiss system is more correctly people’s initiated referenda, which will be discussed in a later article, than direct democracy but it builds on the near direct democracy established in the Cantons in 1513. The Swiss have two levels of government rather than our three; their Cantons are large Councils or small States in Australian terms. Before the internet, or even telecommunications, the Swiss system was as close to direct democracy as was practical.

The current Swiss federal system is well summarised here. A history of Swiss democracy is found here.

Switzerland shows us that radical democracy does not lead to social failure. Direct democracy is shown to be compatible with a prosperous functional state.

In Australia the Online Direct Democracy party (formerly the Senate On-Line party) proposes electing members who agree to vote according to the clear (70%) majority will of Australian voters who register on their web site. If no clear majority is established then the representative may vote with the majority, or the majority of their electorate, or must abstain.

In 2013 the Senate On-Line party achieved 0.07% of the national Senate vote down from 0.14% in the 2010 election.

The two major objections to direct democracy are that it is impractical and the “you can’t handle the truth”, voters can’t handle power, refrain.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that 83% of Australians had home internet access in 2012-2013. Smart-phones have pushed that continually rising number higher. The cost of enabling direct democracy for Australians without internet access is not great and constantly falling. Direct Democracy is a practical option.

The “you can’t handle the truth” objection is code for not trusting democracy. Charitably, the idea is that democracy is good in parts but potentially dangerous.

My article “Why don’t we get the politicians we want” shows the Senate as the more democratic house of the Australian parliament. The Australian Senate moved to proportional representation in 1948. In 1955 two minor party Senators were elected and 1962 saw the first independent senator. Non-major party Senators peaked at 8 in the 1970 election falling to two by the 1975 election. Since then Senate diversity of representation has risen steadily to the current 18 non-major party Senators, except for a jump when Senate numbers were increased in 1984 and a dip in 2005 caused by a demise of the Australian Democrats.

The history of the Senate since 1948 shows that Australians are cautious and responsible in using new democratic tools.

Direct democracy is the best way for government to reflect the will of voters. Swiss experience shows increased democracy drives prosperity; the Senate demonstrates that change would be stable.

Senate On-Line party’s 0.07% vote reflects Australia’s aversion to radical change. Jumping to direct democracy is not practically possible. If we want to increase democracy in Australia we must do it in small steps.

This is the first in a series of articles outlining options to solve the problem identified in my article “Why don’t we get the politicians we want?”. The next article in this series “There can be only one.” discusses a single electorate of the whole country.

Copyright 2015 John David

Why don’t we get the politicians we want?

Political difference is as varied as people in society.

By electing only one member from each electorate any candidate who has the practical objective of winning the seat must fight over the lowest common denominator centre ground of political views. No candidate competing for this centre ground can well represent the views of all but a small minority of the diversity of political views held by the voters of that electorate.

As a result voters are forced to choose the candidate who represents their views least worst. For most voters no viable candidate will come close to adequately representing their political views.

The tired rhetoric of left versus right reflects this problem. The idea that the variety of political views can be represented as a position along a line with ‘far left’ at one end and ‘far right’ at the other is so simplistic as to be meaningless.

Political left versus right is sometimes meaningfully defined as the attitude towards distribution of wealth. Some people believe that society is best served by wealth being equally distributed to all members. Others argue that when wealth is inequitably distributed total wealth is greater and society overall is better off. Of those holding the latter view there is a spectrum of belief as to where the ‘sweet spot’ is between wealth equality and a single person owing all wealth.

With this revised definition of left versus right any member of society can be placed somewhere along a line with perfect equality at one end and one individual owning all wealth at the other. Although this position on the line is now meaningful it far from represents the whole political view of that elector.

Centralisation is another type of political difference. It can be argued centralisation gives government economies of scale which make it more efficient. Others believe society best served by decentralised government where more government is required but the same issue can be decided differently in different places due to local variations. Again any person has beliefs somewhere between the two extremes.

A different but sometimes related range of views applies to totalitarianism versus libertarianism.

A Swiss acquaintance says that the problem with Switzerland is that everything is either illegal or compulsory.

Some people believe that government should tightly control almost every aspect of society, others believe government should be as small as possible, classically only providing defence, law and justice. Anarchists believe that we should have no government at all. Every citizen thinks that the best option lies somewhere between the two extremes.

Conservatives want little or no change; Radicals want lots of change; Reactionaries want change to the way things were in the past. Every citizen will think that the rate of social change should be somewhere in this range.

We have noted four different independent spectra of political views. Although centralisation and totalitarianism are related decentralisation and libertarianism are not always. There are many more political spectra but these are of the most divisive.

Even within each of the four political spectra discussed many people have different positions depending on the particular issue. A farmer may think that strong government regulation and enforced distribution of income is appropriate for agriculture, based on the ‘essential’ nature of farming, but think governments should not similarly interfere with industry.

Claiming political difference is just ‘left’ versus ‘right’ does not pass simple analysis.

This all leaves candidates for a House of Representatives seat, who are serious about winning, struggling not to say anything controversial. In the unlikely event that they well represent your views they would be going out of their way not let you know for fear that it would alienate many others. They have to say maximally uncontroversial things which place them just on the positive side of the 50% line of lowest common denominator policy.

We, the voters, are left voting for the candidate we dislike least.

The Senate does somewhat better. States, which each elect six Senators, allow ideas only best supported by 17% of the electorate to be represented. This encourages candidates representing a much wider variety of ideas to try their luck. After distributing our preferences we still elect someone who least worst represents our ideas but does so much better than in the House of Representatives.

The structure of our political system determines the results we get. To elect the politicians we want the system we use to choose them must change.

Possible solutions for the problem identified above will be discussed in a series of following articles the first of which is “How about Direct Democracy?”  which is followed by “There can be only one.” which discusses having a single electorate of the whole country.

Copyright John David 2015

Waleed Aly “Politics is about persuasion but both parties neglect the public’s views”

In a damning article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Waleed Aly laid waste to the two major parties “both of whom are plumbing historic depths of unpopularity and disapproval”. He goes on to discuss the extremes of the policies enacted by both sides while in government, which ultimately end in naught as they are largely unwound either with fanfare, or through the slow erosion of funding – here he cites Gonski, WorkChoices and others.

Waleed Aly.

Waleed Aly.

Unfortunately he does not seem to offer any solution, merely criticism of the internal ALP process during conference and so forth, and that the coalition parties tend to lack persuasion and instead prefer to “bludgeon” their arguments – citing gay marriage, renewable energy and Q&A.

The link that is unfortunately not drawn is blatant and extraordinary misrepresentation of the public will that is on display within our parliament. This occurs on many issues, but the most obvious and clear-cut recent topic is that of marriage equality. Around 70% of the public polled were in favour. 80% of the coalition party room are against.

As David Marr said on Insiders on Sunday 4th – “Who do these people represent?” These are the same ones instigating wind farm commissioners, and opening coal mines in prime agricultural land for overseas mining companies. Again, who do they represent?

This is where Waleed Aly needs to focus his attention. It is not the machinations of either major party that is the problem, it is the fact that there are only two parties in the first place, despite voting intentions. In a nation where an electoral system exists that awards 15 seats to the Nationals with 6.8% of the vote, and 1 seats to the Greens with 8.4% of the vote in 2013, and too many other examples to cite here, it is clear that the system itself is the cause of the problem.

Concentrated pockets of voters are given disproportionate levels of representation – a fact evidenced recently in the UK elections, where again due to the nature of the electoral system, UKIP (whatever you think of their policies) attained 12.5% of the vote. The SNP attained 4.7% of the vote. UKIP got one seat, the SNP 56 and ultimately, of course, the Conservative party won with a majority of seats on less than 37% of the primary vote. While they have first past the post and we have forced preferences, the result is much the same because at the heart of it, the system relies on single member electorates.

And heck, I won’t even start on the United States.

I’ve noticed that for some peculiar reason, the English speaking world has this adversarial approach to politics which is imbued with a two-party culture of politics. Presumably we can blame the Westminster tradition of debating style. Either way, the recent rise of minor parties has increased disproportionality and along with it voter disaffection. There is a large proportion of the population that are not represented fairly or not represented at all, while others are over-represented.

The easiest way to see this is simply by taking the number of votes divided by the seats won. Its quite shocking. This is for the House of Representatives in 2013.

Liberal Party Room  Votes Seats  Votes/Seats
Q LP  687,853 16
LP  3,392,460 58
CLP  36,613 1
 4,116,926 75 54,892
National Party Room
Q NP  244,871 6
NP  487947 9
 732,818 15 48,855
Labor Party Room
ALP  3611178 55 65,658

Which is all well and good (although not great, hey ALP supporters?) until you consider those pesky minor parties.

  • Katter’s Australia Party – 107,017
  • Palmer United Party – 595,216
  • The Greens – 898,410

In short, our representatives are not representative. 36,613 votes to elect one MP, 898,410 to elect another. So one MP has 24 times fewer votes than another.

And before I hear you bleat – “but what about the Senate?”. To this I would answer, “Where is government formed and where do money bills originate?”.

One vote one value!

The key is electoral reform. Change this and you begin to accurately represent the community, create inclusiveness in the political process, foster proper public debate, destroy the power of the lobbyists, blow the lid of secrecy and, y’know, generally end the tyrannical rule of the two party system.

So to provide an answer as to why the major parties are ignoring the public’s views, perhaps it is simply because under our electoral system, they are not sufficiently scared of losing their seats. Listening to the public is not a requisite skill or necessity – attaining funds for advertising is.

What a TV election debate should look like


Check it out – there are more than two people!  This is what you see in Sweden, but is typical of any proportional representation system of elections. These are parliamentary party leaders – yep, they have this many political parties sitting in their parliament. And you wonder how these guys achieve good policy outcomes? Perhaps having more than two views at the table would be a good start.

In Australia, and indeed the United States and the United Kingdom are plagued by the familiar sight of the political debates:





 All looking a bit limited compared to Sweden, eh?


OK, I’ll admit that the UK has 3 people at the podium. But how did that work out for the LibDems anyway? The debate was really between the two men facing us in this photo.


Even in New Zealand we see the following recently (in addition to a two major party debate):

6a00d83451d75d69e2015393385369970bNot quite to the production quality of our other contenders, but nonetheless.